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Real Madrid v Man City Why Pep Guardiola may spring surprise in Champions League
Real Madrid v Man City Why Pep Guardiola may spring surprise in Champions League

Manchester City’s whole season will be defined by how they do in the Champions League.

I thought that before they were banned from playing in it for the next two seasons – but it is even more the case now, and it should galvanise them as they prepare to take on Real Madrid in the last 16.

It is always easy as a player to say you are giving 100% but, when you know that something might not be there for the next couple of seasons, you are definitely going to give that little bit more.

The competition is obviously hugely important to their manager Pep Guardiola too. He has not won it since 2011 and bringing that trophy to Etihad Stadium was part of the reason he went to City in 2016.

Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola won the Champions League twice as manager of Barcelona, most recently in 2011 when they beat Manchester United in the final

Then you consider that City’s defence of their Premier League title is basically over, and also how winning the Champions League has always been the holy grail for the club to legitimise their place among the European elite anyway.

So, everything will be geared towards them getting past Real and, if City play their normal game, I would be confident they will go through.

You cannot be sure Pep will do that, however.

Does Guardiola have another surprise in store?

Guardiola has constantly changed his formation since the turn of the year and he seems to be focusing more on the opposition at the moment, rather than just playing his strongest available team and having trust in them.

Of course you have got to be aware of the different threats you will face in two-legged ties like this, but I think City are at their best when they play their way.

By that, I mean when they focus on attacking football rather than studying the other team and coming up with a game plan to try to stop them – and that applies whoever they are up against, even Real.

When you face Real on a big occasion like this, you fear their experience, their history and the whole aura of the club – but the tie will not be decided by any of that.

Graphic showing Manchester City and Real Madrid's contrasting financial situations: Man City 2018-19 revenue £535m, profit £10m, 2018 wages £263m. Real Madrid 2018-19 revenue £636m, profit £32m, wages £362m
Manchester City have emerged over the past decade as a major force on the European stage but Wednesday’s opponents Real Madrid still boast higher revenue and profits than the Premier League side, based on their most recent accounts

You only face the 11 players on the pitch, and this Real team is not the force they were two or three years ago.

Now that Aymeric Laporte is fit again and back in their defence, City are a match for anyone and they would have no problem going to the Bernabeu on Wednesday and going toe-to-toe with them in the first leg.

But Guardiola has previous when it comes to tweaking his team in this competition in knockout ties – he did it at Liverpool and Tottenham in the past couple of years – and holding something back.

So, based on that and his other recent actions, I have a feeling he will have another surprise in store for us in the away leg.

Guardiola will be petrified of Real’s fast wide players

Real Madrid players celebrate winning
When Real Madrid beat Liverpool to win the Champions League in 2018, they became the first team to win the European Cup/Champions League in three successive seasons since Bayern Munich between 1974 and 1976.

In the past few weeks, City have actually played in a shape more resembling a 4-4-2 the majority of the time during games, rather than their trademark 4-3-3, but Guardiola has made plenty of other more obvious changes, usually to counter the opposition threat.

At Old Trafford in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final, he played without a striker, using Bernardo Silva as a false nine, and in the return he went with a back three containing two full-backs because he knew Manchester United would try to exploit the wide spaces.

Against Sheffield United last month, Guardiola also went with a 5-3-2 shape because of their split strikers and it would not shock me if he used three centre-backs again in the away leg on Wednesday.

City’s gameplan is all about getting attacking overloads in certain areas and not getting exposed by fast breaks on the counter-attack, so he has to get the balance right.

Eden Hazard will miss the game through injury but Real still have the sort of fast wide players in Vinicius Junior and Gareth Bale that Pep seems to be petrified of, who love to get into those areas behind his full-backs when they go forward.

Eden Hazard limps off after suffering a fractured ankle in Real's 1-0 defeat against Levante on Saturday
Eden Hazard limps off after suffering a fractured ankle in Real’s 1-0 defeat against Levante on Saturday. The Belgian was playing only his third game since returning to action on 16 February after almost three months out with a similar injury

I don’t think Hazard’s absence is as big a blow to Real as it might first appear, either.

The Belgium playmaker had only just returned to action after a long lay-off before he broke his ankle again at the weekend, and he was not in the sort of form we were used to seeing when he was playing in the Premier League.

In the past some managers have changed their whole system to deal with Hazard, but Guardiola would not have been making any plans just to stop one player, so it will not affect his thinking too much.

Instead, he will have been working on a formation he thinks is best suited against Real in every area of the pitch.

Real still have a lot of quality right through their side, but other than Karim Benzema, who scores most of their goals, their strength is more as a unit.

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema
Benzema is Real’s top scorer this season with 18 goals in all competitions, followed by Sergio Ramos and Rodrygo (both seven)

Vinicius Junior has been playing well, but without scoring many goals, and with Bale in and out of the team, Real no longer carry the kind of individual attacking threat that they had when Cristiano Ronaldo was in their team and at his peak.

Their best players recently have been the likes of Casemiro or Federico Valverde – who has been fantastic in central midfield, which will be such a key area on Wednesday.

Laporte gives City a chance of winning Champions League

Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte
Aymeric Laporte helped Manchester City win a domesic treble last season and in January Guardiola described him as the “best left-sided central defender in the world”. All six of City’s Premier League defeats this season have come without the Frenchman in their team

As well as his formation, Guardiola has some decisions to make on personnel – starting at the back.

Laporte’s return is huge for City – he is so important that he gives them a chance to win the Champions League. I don’t see it happening this season without him.

The good news is he has played around an hour in each of their past two Premier League games so it looks like he will be ready for Real, and they will need him.

He is their best defender, and the best at passing the ball out of their back-line, or bringing it forward when they start building attacks.

Laporte is also left-footed, so he brings proper balance to the team and is such a reassuring presence on the left-side of their defence for whoever gets the nod at left-back – Benjamin Mendy or Oleksandr Zinchenko.

He is a physical presence too, for defending set-pieces, and is comfortable when he is left one-on-one, so he is the key to everything, really.

If City play with a four-man defence then I would put Nicolas Otamendi next to him as an out-and-out defender to help deal with Benzema, but Guardiola clearly likes Fernandinho at centre-back, so I am not sure who will get the nod – it could be he goes with all three of them.

At left-back, Mendy and Zinchenko both have their pros and cons but neither of them are the greatest defensively, which is why having Laporte next to them is so vital.

Sterling would be a danger at any moment

Raheem Sterling on the cover of Spanish publication AS
Sterling spoke to Spanish publication AS last week about the possibility of joining Real Madrid – on Wednesday he will try to knock them out of the Champions League

In midfield, Guardiola’s selection on Wednesday will depend on how ambitious he wants to be.

Real are very solid defensively so if he wants to break them down then his best option would be to have Rodri holding and David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne on either side of him.

But he might consider that to be too attack-minded at the Bernabeu so there is a real possibility that Ilkay Gundogan will come in for Silva.

Up front, I would like to see Riyad Mahrez play – ideally with Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling.

Mahrez showed again what he brings to the team with his brilliant run to set up City’s winner at Leicester on Saturday, and he has arguably been City’s best player for a while now.

But Guardiola still seems reluctant to play him and if he has a quiet game then he always seems to be out of the team the following week.

Whoever else gets the nod alongside Aguero, Sterling’s fitness will be key.

Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling
Sterling has scored 20 goals and made six assists in all competitions for City this season but has not managed either in 2020. He has not played since suffering a hamstring injury in a 2-0 defeat by Tottenham on 2 February

There are not many goals in this Real team, but they are difficult to break down and Sterling will make a difference just by being on the pitch if he has recovered from his hamstring injury.

I know he is not in the greatest form at the moment in terms of goals or assists, but the way he changes games is not necessarily down to him getting on the ball.

His pace when he makes those penetrative runs off the ball frightens defenders and pins them back and is vital for making space for the likes of De Bruyne or Aguero.

I know it sounds like I am just calling him a runner but it is an important part of the game in ties like this and, with Leroy Sane still not ready to return, City do not have anyone else who is as effective at it.

That will be particularly important in the away leg, and City’s chances of getting a positive result to take back to the Etihad will be much improved if Sterling features.

He is the sort of player who is a danger at any moment in the game.

Darren Fletcher was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

source: bbc sports

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